Until relatively recently, most people hearing that someone had a “gig” would assume that person was a musician. Whether for a night, a week, or even as a “steady gig,” we would assume the person had been hired in the limited sense that he was going to get paid a flat fee or percentage of the sales for a performance. Of course, the gig was never limited to musicians, or even to show business. The gig is far older than these United States and always has had an important role in market economies. Casual laborers waiting on the street for someone to hire them for the day are looking for gigs. Oftentimes their bosses are contractors, themselves working a gig in that they are being paid to accomplish a specific task.
Lawyers deal with the gig economy all the time, enforcing contracts and litigating different parties’ responsibilities. Businesses often find it more convenient, cheaper, and safer in terms of being sued, to hire independent contractors by the job rather than keep employees on the payroll. So what has changed? Over the last few decades, these kind of casual employment relationships have become increasingly common, and the gig has climbed rather far up the socio-economic ladder.
The most often-remarked expansion of the gig economy is among technology workers. Many of us know quite skilled and even well-off computer engineers, programmers, and others who are not employed by a specific company. These workers find gigs through contacts, websites, and various contracting companies. The gig may last a day, a week, or a year. Professionals may make very good money this way, but are on their own in terms of paying work- and life-related expenses (e.g. health care) and finding their next gig.
Some observers sing the praises of the gig economy as liberating for workers as well as their employers, and as encouraging independence and the entrepreneurial experience. There certainly are examples to which gig economy boosters can point. Many contract workers enjoy having more freedom to move among employers, provided they can find enough work and control their spending enough to cover dry times. What is more, given the horrendous commute times and prevalence of two-income families, the ability to take time off or work from home to fulfill one’s contract can be beneficial to family life.
That said, there are rather clear costs associated with the gig economy. An old-line Social Justice Warrior and even a traditional conservative could find plenty of evidence to support the claim that the gig economy is exploitive. Ironically, if typically enough, the worst offenders, here, are the supposedly civic-minded tech companies. Corporations like Microsoft are massive promoters of the gig economy. A number of these powerful corporations have taken advantage of lax immigration rules to bring in guest workers who will toil for half the wage demanded by labor markets in the United States. They then leverage this “diversity” to force many of their remaining American workers to accept being pushed off the payroll into lower-paying, insecure contract positions that lack employee benefits. This is not the market economy at work. It is, rather, abuse of political power to undermine labor market forces for the benefit of a few very rich and powerful manipulators.
Immigration issues aside, it makes some sense to overlook the obvious hypocrisy of leftist billionaires supporting nationalized health and welfare programs, paid for by taxpayers, that pick up the slack when they strip security and benefits from their own workers. Why overlook this hypocrisy? Because government requirements have made it increasingly difficult for decent employers to make a profit—something necessary, lest we forget, for them to keep employing workers. Healthcare mandates and administrative rules, regulations, and reporting requirements—not to mention the direct and insurance costs associated with various social justice lawsuits—often more than double the cost of employing someone directly. Under such circumstances, it should surprise no one that employers will look to cut (or “outsource”) costs by turning an employee into a contract worker with a more-or-less steady gig.
A contract job certainly is better than no job. That said, the romanticized idea of a “gig economy” is something that should worry Americans. Why? Not because this economy allows employers to get out from under overly onerous employment requirements. Not because it recognizes the inherent risks involved in working in a market economy. What makes the gig economy worrisome is that it both results from and feeds into the increasing distrust and fragmentation already undermining our economy and our society.
I have known denizens of the gig economy for some time. Some are happy, many get by, and some are ruined by the experience. Casual labor is in fact emotionally and morally debilitating for many people. Why are so many show business people involved in drugs, alcohol abuse, and broken marriages? One can argue over specifics, but the problems of anxiety over finding the next gig, combined with too much “down time,” with its boredom and potential loss of initiative clearly is a factor. The problems of casual laborers and the chronically underemployed point in this same direction: Lack of steady work is stressful and enervating, and can lead to self-destructive behavior, even among the reasonably well-formed and educated.
I recently had my first experience with Lyft, the alternative to Uber and regular cab service. The service was fantastic, and the people who had the gig of driving me to and from the Los Angeles airport were wonderful. But our conversations were enlightening and worrisome at the same time. I was impressed with both drivers’ initiative and entrepreneurial spirit and ambition. One owned a fledgling small business, the other had a separate, full-time warehouse job. Both seemed to have mastered the art of making decent money in their spare time. But neither was “getting ahead” in the sense of earning extra money to save up for something more. Both needed their jobs to simply make ends meet—one because he could not find a decent job in an expensive area, the other because her previous employer had fired most of its employees with no notice and her new business was not making money.
Of course, this is in large measure part of life in a market economy, and both drivers still impress me with their determination to piece together a decent living. But the downward mobility of the Obama economy, combined with the loss of career attachment and employer/employee bonds that were so common in previous generations seem to be fragmenting economic as well as social relationships. Many would call the new economy freer, but what I see too often in those who seek gigs is isolation and constant stress. Some might say this is what entrepreneurship requires. But many who are very good engineers, or programmers, or warehouseman, are not so good at sales. Are we not, then, rewarding people for a skill set (sales) that has little to do with actually producing useful things? Are we not devaluing yet more the skills and hard work that built our successful economy and society?
Workplaces are, or should be, communities. I mean this in a very practical sense. Most of us forge friendships at work. Sometimes we become close, sometimes that friendship is merely a kind of trust that we will look after one another on the assembly line, at the meeting, or in covering for one another’s failings to make certain the company does not lose contracts or customers. However common it may have become, workplace sabotage is known even today as something dishonorable and harmful to the company. But the common habits, outlook, and shared assumptions that make professional trust and honor possible are much more difficult to form when we become mere casual acquaintances who happen to meet up on a particular gig. As church, community, or other local associations die when we no longer actually do things together on a regular basis, workplaces die when people no longer come together at a particular place.
Even freedom, in its most fundamental sense, suffers in the gig economy. Freedom means choosing communities, not living without them. When we are completely separated from one another, we find ourselves more dependent on the government to provide those services that used to be found, for example, at work. Before our modern healthcare mess, Americans often got their healthcare “insurance” through work-based doctors, hired by the company or the union (or, of course, by other local associations). Increasingly, the only choice remaining is government controlled insurance that comes down to a requirement that we prepay for services we may or may not require. This is not freedom, but dependence on the state.
I would not want to be taken as calling for some government program to outlaw or discourage the gig economy. Rather, I would simply point out that one of many reasons to stop government programs hectoring and imposing costs and rules on employers is that they are expanding this gig economy. Unfortunately, reductions in employer mandates alone at this point would not be enough to reintegrate workers into functioning work communities. The breakdown of trust between workers and employers—as between consumers and producers and in society more generally—has caused such fragmentation that the gig economy is becoming merely one part of a gig society. Increasingly, employment, purchasing habits, patronage, social relations, and even marriage all are treated as mere temporary arrangements of utility. And that is how cultures and human aspirations die.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on May 7, 2017.